Nirvana’s meteoric rise was a classic example of the American Dream in action — until heroin turned it into a nightmare for singer Kurt Cobain. Michael Azerrad’s forthcoming biography, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, is an explicit account of the hell-and-back story. Below, the author introduces an exclusive extract from the band’s darkest hours.
KURT COBAIN grew up in the shabby logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, amid drugs, drinking violence, unemployment and divorce, with only the wild promise of punk rock to tide him through. Yet music is only part of a story that veered wildly from the humorous to the horrific.
Keen on vanquishing an apparently hostile and unscrupulous biography already in the works, Nirvana asked me to write a competing version, promising their complete co-operation. I had no interest in a self serving “authorised” biography — and neither did Kurt, who said something like: “No, that would be too Guns N’ Roses.” So just before Christmas 1992, I flew to Seattle for the first round of interviews, with no restrictions on what I could ask, and no guarantee that the band would even like what I wrote.
Many associates of the band were wary of being interviewed; some wouldn’t talk until Kurt personally reassured them. Eventually all spoke candidly, none more so than Kurt’s wife, Courtney Love, who was far from the conniving ogre portrayed by Vanity Fair last year. While prone to harsh comment and a marked intolerance for fools, Courtney can also be a thoughtful, funny, even sweet person. The idea that she “controls” her husband soon fell by the wayside as well; witness a couple of arguments between the Mr and Mrs and it’s apparent that Kurt more than holds his own.
Kurt liked to begin talking well after midnight, and our sessions often lasted until just before dawn. He never dodged a single question; “I’m caught,” he said, explaining his candour, particularly towards the drug problem. Besides, the truth of the matter wasn’t nearly as bad as the rumours. By doing this book. Nirvana hoped to put the past behind them and move on.
A case in point is the following excerpt, which begins with Kurt, Chris and Dave having just returned to Seattle after the traumatic Nevermind tour of November and December 1991. The combined US and European tour lasted 12 weeks, and in that time Nirvana bloomed from being virtual unknowns to worldwide cultural icons. The frenetic touring schedule, the relentless media attention and the shock of monumental success took their toll on all three, but Kurt absorbed the brunt of it (and still does). After a shambolic Paris show, the band cancelled the remaining few weeks of the tour and went home in a state of emotional and physical exhaustion. Chris and Dave soon bounced back, but for Kurt, it was the beginning of an eight-month journey into oblivion.
Kurt and Courtney had done heroin together in Amsterdam for two days. “It was my idea,” says Kurt. “I was the one who instigated it. But I didn’t know how to get it, so Courtney would take me to find it. We only did it twice on the whole tour.” They found a guy on the street who took them to the red light district, where they scored. Later, they did more in London.
Kurt’s stomach pain had been making him chronically irritable. “A lot of hatred would surface because I was in such a fucked-up state,” he says. “I just decided I wanted to have a life. If I’m going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself for a reason instead of some stupid stomach problem. So I decided to take everything in excess all at once.”
In early December, when Kurt returned to Seattle after the tour and Courtney was still in Europe with Hole, he began hanging out with a recovering addict. He soon sweet-talked her into getting him heroin. At first, she’d cop for him when she felt like it, but eventually Kurt scored on his own. “I was determined to get a habit,” he says. “I said: ‘This is the only thing that’s saving me from blowing my head off. I’ve been to ten doctors, I’ve got to do something to stop this pain’.”
“It started with three days in a row of doing heroin,” he says. “That was such a relief. I decided: ‘Fuck, I’m going to do this for a whole year. I can’t do it forever because I’ll fucking die.’ I don’t regret it because I healed myself.” Kurt has little idea how long he was in Seattle or where he stayed before going down to LA, but when Courtney came home from the Hole tour later in December, Kurt called and said: “Let’s live together”. They bounced from hotel to hotel, doing what Courtney calls “bad Mexican LA heroin”. Kurt would do the lion’s share. Courtney never got the hang of injecting drugs, so Kurt would often shoot her up “whenever she’d beg me hard enough.” She already had a dark little scar on the inside of her elbow from when other people had botched it.
What were those weeks like? “I don’t really remember,” Kurt replies, even though it’s only a year later. “I just remember us both being total slobs.”
Just after Christmas, the band set off on a brief tour with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who headlined. During the tour, Nirvana’s bass player Chris Novoselic finally admitted to himself that Kurt was heavily into heroin. “He looked like a ghoul. I just figured: ‘It’s his fucking trip, it’s his life, he can do whatever he wants’.”
Everyone assumed that Courtney had encouraged Kurt to do heroin. “She was the big scapegoat,” explains Chris’s wife Shelli. “It was easy to blame her at first… everybody did. They still do. Just because she’s loud and outspoken and has her own point of view.”
The fact is, Kurt had been doing heroin off and on for years by then; Courtney hadn’t done it in three years. “[It’s] such a typical sexist stupid thing to say,” Kurt says. “Man, when I got off the European tour, I went out of my way to get drugs every fucking day. On my own.”
The first press to acknowledge the heroin rumours was a January 1992 profile in BAM magazine which claimed that Kurt was “nodding off in mid-sentence”. The publicity began to take its toll.
“I started getting paranoid that cops were going to bust into our house or I’d get pulled over and they’d recognize me, find my track marks and take me to jail. The biggest fear was detoxing cold turkey because the cops wouldn’t put me in a hospital, they’d just let me go cold turkey and I’d probably die in jail. So I’d drive real cautiously to the drug dealer’s house.”
A lot of people around them struggled to understand why Kurt and Courtney were doing this to themselves. “It’s like this,” says Courtney.” ‘Hey, you know what? I just sold a million fuckin’ records and I got a million bucks and I’m going to share it with you and let’s get high!’.”
Heroin still held an allure as a staple of rock culture. “That’s the drug that makes you sleepy and happy,” says Courtney. “That’s the drug you do if you’re in a fuckin’ four-star hotel and you can order all the Goddamn room service that you want and you can just lay in bed and drool all over yourself. That’s the drug you do if you want to be a kid forever.”
Nevermind hit Number One on the US Billboard album charts the week of January 11, 1992. By then, Kurt and Courtney had been doing heroin long enough to get addicted. That week, the band went to New York to tape a live set for MTV and to play Saturday Night Live.
“I didn’t realise until Saturday Night Live, because I’m stupid,” admits drummer Dave Grohl. “I remember walking into their hotel room and they were nodding out in bed, wasted. It was disgusting and gross. I think it’s pathetic for anyone to do something to make themselves a drooling fucking baby.”
The rock’n’roll trail is littered with heroin fatalities, from Sid Vicious to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Hillel Slovak. “Those people did every drug in the book, all at once,” Kurt scoffs. “They get drunk, get high and then they die. I never drank — I learned that from junkies. It cuts down on respiratory twice as much. You pass out when you’re drunk and you wake up and get high, and there’s no way you’re going to survive that.” Returning from New York, Kurt and Courtney moved into a modest apartment on Spaulding Avenue in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Their day-to-day existence was routine. “I just got up and got drugs and listened to music and painted and played guitar,” Kurt says. “Watched TV. That’s about it.”
“We went through a lot of blankets because you keep dropping your cigarette,” says Courtney.
Kurt doesn’t know how much he was doing in grams, but he knows he had a $100-dollar-a-day habit.
“When I gave her drugs, I would do this much,” Kurt says, indicating a large amount, “and I would give her that much,” indicating a very small amount. “I was real selfish,” he admits. “She probably had a twenty-dollar habit, if that. It was more psychological than it was physical.”
Kurt says he never OD’d, although he did once get a case of “cotton fever”, which happens when a strand of cotton gets into the needle and is then injected into the vein, producing a fever and an excruciating headache. Kurt went to the hospital and was given Benadryl, an over-the-counter antihistamine, which cured him.
They grew increasingly paranoid. In the middle of the night, Courtney would think she heard an intruder and Kurt would take out his handgun and check it out. No-one was ever there.
“I’m not against guns,” Kurt says. “I own one. I’m not as much of a hippy as some people would want me to be. I could blow somebody away easily, no problem, if I had to protect myself or my family I actually kind of like guns now.”
Kurt and Courtney hadn’t been using birth control, even though Courtney was mainlining. Courtney calls that “a morality issue” and insists that she knew she’d quit if she discovered she was pregnant. “I was an idiot — what can I say?” she says now. “But I’m not immoral.”
When they found out Courtney was pregnant, Kurt was ready to insist on an abortion because he assumed that the baby would be born retarded or deformed.
They consulted a teratogenic (birth defects) specialist who informed them that heroin use, especially if confined to the first trimester, was virtually harmless to the foetus if the mother’s withdrawal wasn’t traumatic. “Tell that to a middle American housewife,” says Kurt. ‘You can’t expect anyone to believe it.”
“I didn’t have a baby to stop doing drugs,” says Courtney, “but I knew that I would continue to do drugs and my career would go to hell, and I’d be one of those junkies that I’ve seen at NA meetings with track marks on their hands and neck.” Heroin’s allure was very powerful. “If I’ve ever seen Satan, that’s it, because it’s so insidious. It breaks you down morally. It’s not like this guy with horns, it’s this beautiful angel who’s promising you another heaven.”
Looming ahead was a tour that went from California to Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Hawaii, which was scheduled to kick off on January 24. Kurt knew he had to detox for the tour, so he and Courtney decided to detox together. A doctor checked them into a Holiday Inn and prescribed them various drugs to tide them through the three-day withdrawal period.”
Kurt says it was easy. “It wasn’t a heavy drug addiction at all,” Kurt says. “I’d only been doing it for a month straight and I’d just started to get addicted, probably that week that I got off of them. Withdrawals were nothing. I just slept for three days and woke up.”
Courtney has a different take. “That was a sick scene, because you get diarrhoea and lots of sleeping pills, and it was just vomiting.” As Kurt admits: “The bathroom didn’t smell very good.”
People in the entourage began wondering if going on tour was a good idea. “Everybody knew that it wasn’t,” says Dave. “Maybe we didn’t know within the first two days of the tour, but after a week-and-a-half, sure, everybody knew it.” For the first few days, Kurt felt fine. Then suddenly, his old stomach condition began acting up again. He was vomiting constantly and couldn’t eat. He would call up Courtney, crying from the pain. One day, Kurt says, he was sitting on the steps of a hotel, wincing with pain, and Shelli walked up to him and said: “Kurt, I just hate to see you doing this to yourself. I can’t stand to see you hurting your body like this.”
“I just wanted to fucking punch her in the face because, just like everyone else, she just assumed that I was doing drugs,” he says. “I was thinking: You fucking people have no clue how much pain I’m in all the time. It’s from a natural thing that’s in my body’ I’ll never forget those words because it just defined everyone’s attitude towards me. Every time that I wasn’t doing drugs, they suspected that I was. They still do.” He finally went to a “rock doctor” who had a picture of himself with the Rolling Stones on his office wall. Kurt told the doctor his stomach history, and the doctor replied: “I know what your problem is.” Tour manager Alex Macleod had mistakenly told the doctor that Kurt was detoxing beforehand. “I think I’m going to get some kind of stomach medicine, and the doctor just assumes that I’d just recently gotten off of heroin and I’m going through detox so I’d better do what Keith Richards would have done and take methadone,” Kurt says. “It’s called Physeptone in Australia, so I thought they were just stomach pills.”
The pills worked. Nirvana finished the tour, then flew off to Singapore for a day of press. They were met at the airport by about 250 fans, who waved “Welcome To Singapore” banners and chased after them. It turned out that this was standard practice in Singapore. The label had even announced their arrival in the newspaper and handed out the banners.
By the time Courtney joined the tour in Japan, Kurt was hooked on opiates again — without, he claims, even realizing it.
They got married in Waikiki, Hawaii, on February 24, 1992. The couple had already worked out a prenuptial agreement at Courtney’s insistence. “I didn’t want Kurt running away with all my money,” she jokes.
Dave and his friend/drum tech Barrett Jones had both brought girlfriends to Hawaii, but Kurt and Courtney didn’t want them there. “They all came from Seattle, and they were all going to come back and lie about things,” says Courtney. Besides, Kurt thought he might cry at the ceremony and wanted it to be private.
They were even feeling bad vibes from Chris and Shelli. “Shelli and Chris were being really shitty to us,” says Courtney, “and they thought I was doing all these drugs. I’m in Japan — how could I be doing any drugs?” Kurt had a crew member summon Chris up to his hotel room, and informed him that he didn’t want anyone at the wedding who didn’t want them to get married — meaning Shelli. Chris said if his wife wasn’t going, he wasn’t either. “I don’t regret it, I don’t take it back one bit,” says Courtney. “I couldn’t see it happening with Shelli there at that point in time.” The two women later reconciled.
By the time they got to Hawaii, Kurt had run out of Physeptone and convinced a friend to bring him some heroin so he wouldn’t start detoxing. Kurt was high on heroin at his own wedding. “I wasn’t very high, though,” he says “I just did a little teeny bit just so I didn’t get sick.”
Present at the ceremony, on a cliff overlooking a beach, were Dave, Alex Macleod, sound man Ian Beveridge, Dylan Carlson and his girlfriend, and Nirvana guitar tech Nick Close. The bride wore an antique lace dress which once belonged to Frances Farmer and the groom wore green flannel pyjamas. A non-denominational female minister whom Courtney found through the Hawaiian wedding bureau performed the brief ceremony. Kurt did cry, Courtney didn’t. “It was very transcendent,” says Courtney. “It was like being on acid. It was great.”
Back in LA, Kurt was well on his way to becoming a rock star cliché. At the apartment, he would shoot up in a closet in an extra room down the hallway, where he kept his heroin, needles, spoons and rubbing alcohol. “I knew I was tempting her all the time,” says Kurt. “I just had to keep doing it. I knew if I quit then, I’d end up doing it again for at least the next couple of years all the time. I figured I’d just burn myself out of it because I hadn’t experienced the full junkie feeling yet. I was still healthy.
“I didn’t find myself just sitting in the house, nodding off and sleeping,” Kurt says. “I was always doing something artistic. I got a lot of paintings done and wrote a lot of songs. It was a lot less turbulent than everyone thinks. It was pretty boring. I did all my best songs on heroin this year.” But he was falling out of touch with the band. They barely spoke for five months, even at rehearsals.
“Those guys went off into their own world, and they were kind of thought of as vampires because they’d be gone and sleep all day,” says Chris, who would rant at Dave or Shelli: “Kurt’s a fucking junkie asshole and I hate him!” Chris was angry with Kurt, he says, “probably because I felt like he left me. I was really concerned and worried about him.”
Dave wasn’t as affected as Chris. “We do depend on each other for certain things, but it’s not like bosom buddies. I didn’t feel like I’d invested so much in the relationship that I was being robbed.
“When it started affecting the band’s reputation, I got a little more upset. It’s weird, because there are so many people who work with the band who don’t really have anything to do with me,” Dave says. “Basically, all I do is walk up on stage and I play drums. And then afterwards, I go home. There’s just so much that goes on that I don’t even know about. In a lot of ways, that can be a blessing; but on the other hand, it does make you wonder about your own importance.”
Kurt didn’t want to go out on tour and have his stomach act up, and besides, he wanted to be with Courtney throughout her pregnancy. Career-wise, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. If Nirvana had toured the United States that spring — and an extensive arena tour was planned — Nevermind would have topped the charts for even longer.
Chris didn’t care. “We toured for three years,” he says. “It just seemed like a lot more pressure. Before, we were just vagabonds in a van. Now you’ve got a tour manager and a crew and schedules and shit. It used to be: ‘Stage time’s at six o’clock.’ And we could say: ‘Fuck it, we’re going to buy records.’ We’d be on an adventure. And now it’s a circus.”
Gradually, the ice broke between Kurt and Chris. “Kurt and I would have these cool talks,” says Chris. “Every once in a while, we’d talk about things and I’d really feel better.”
Later, a video sonogram revealed a normally-developing baby (a picture of Frances in utero graces the insert of the ‘Lithium’ single). “Oh God, it was incredible,” Kurt says, suddenly aglow. “It was one of the most amazing things. It wasn’t just a picture — it was a video. It was the first time we realized she was a living thing. You could see her heart beating.” While he was watching the footage, Kurt swears he saw Frances give Heavy Metal’s familiar forefinger-and-pinky Satan salute.
Then came a bitter dispute over publishing royalties. Like everyone else, Kurt didn’t expect that the band would sell millions. To avoid a situation in which he would have received an overwhelming slice of a small pie, he agreed to split royalties for music-writing equally with Chris and Dave.
“I write the songs,” says Kurt. “Most of the time that I ask their opinion, it’s just to make them feel a part of the band. I have the ultimate decision.”
Once the album took off so phenomenally, Kurt changed his mind, but not, he says, because of the money (Kurt says the difference comes to about $150,000). “I deserve a little bit more, because I have to deal with the pressure of writing the songs. I don’t care if someone else gets the credit, but I should at least be financially compensated.”
Dave and Chris had no qualms until Kurt asked for the arrangement to be retroactive to the release of Nevermind. The uproar lasted just one week in March, but it nearly split the band.
“Chris and I were just like: ‘If this is any indication of how much of a dick Kurt is going to be, then I don’t want to be in a band’,” Dave says. Meanwhile, everyone with a vested interest in the band was urging Chris and Dave to back down. “Everybody was saying: ‘Let him have this one, because you guys could make 15 million dollars next year.”
On the phone one day, Kurt said to Dave: “I can’t believe you guys are being so greedy.”
“Whatever,” Dave replied disgustedly, and Kurt hung up on him.
“At the time, I was ready to fucking quit the band over it,” says Kurt. “I couldn’t believe that [they were] giving me so much shit about this.” Kurt eventually got his retroactive split — 75 per cent of the music-writing royalties — but the bad feelings still simmer.
Kurt checked into Exodus, a rehab programme favoured by rock stars. “It was disgusting,’ says Kurt. “Right away, these 40-year-old hippie long-term-junkie-type counsellors would come in and try to talk to me on a rock’n’roll level. Like: I know where you’re at, man. Drugs are real prevalent in rock’n’roll and I’ve seen it all in the ’70s. Would you mind if David Crosby came in and said hello? Or Steven Tyler?’ I was like: ‘Fuck that. I don’t have any respect for these people at all.'”
Kurt stayed for four days. “I was feeling all right,” he says. “I thought it was over and then I ended up trying to detox at home.” He sweated it out for a few days then went up to Seattle with Courtney and got high. When they returned to LA, he had a habit again.
Courtney spent more time with her guitarist Eric Erlandson in order to stay away from Kurt. She would occasionally go to the nursery at Cedars-Sinai and look at the babies to strengthen her resolve.
In July, the ‘Lithium’ single was released and the band set out on a two-week tour to make up the dates cancelled the previous December in Ireland and Scandinavia, as well as visit France and Spain. “It was pretty insane,” says Dave of the tour, “and it was not fun.”
He remarked to writer Keith Cameron that, for the first time, he didn’t even know the names of the crew members. The major-label shit was hitting the punk-rock fan.
To make it through the tour, Kurt got some methadone pills from a “quack doctor” and an Aids patient. The morning after a June 22 Belfast show, he collapsed in convulsions over breakfast. “I woke up with withdrawals. My stomach was so bad that I decided if I took methadone then I would just puke it up, so I had them take me to the hospital so I could get some morphine.”
The official word from the Nirvana camp was that Kurt had a bleeding ulcer brought on by “junk food”.
After that, it was bad vibes all round. For one thing, Courtney was six months’ pregnant and in full hormonal swing. For another: “Everybody was tired of me doing drugs,” Kurt says. “I didn’t do anything but forget to take my methadone pills the night before and had to be rushed to the hospital — big deal. Dave could have hurt himself in a fucking jock accident. Chris could have fallen off the stage drunk that night. They’ve bought the same drug hysteria propaganda that has been going on in the United States since the Reagan years.”
It wasn’t like Kurt and Courtney didn’t have a sense of humour about it all — they would check into hotels as “Mr and Mrs Simon Ritchie” (the real name of Sid Vicious).
The band’s management hired two professional “minders” to keep an eye on Kurt and Courtney for the next show in Paris. “I was being monitored by two goons,” Kurt says, “and I wasn’t looking for drugs at all. I had methadone, I was fine, but I was being treated like a fucking baby. They were turning this band into everything it wasn’t supposed to be.”
Seeing as “Dave at least listens,” Kurt opened up to him about what was really going on. “Dave’s practically the only person I’ve ever really talked to about this,” Kurt says. “Chris was massively judgemental — all he did was give me bad vibes and dirty looks.”
In Spain, Courtney experienced mild contractions and became terrified that she might give birth prematurely. “Of course,” says Kurt, “she had them right before we had to play a show, so I had to play a show wondering if Courtney’s going to die or if she’s going to have a baby.” After the show, Kurt raced to the hospital. “It was the most groaty, disgusting hospital I’ve ever seen — dirt on the walls, the nurses screaming in Spanish at Courtney, telling her to stay down,” Kurt says. They moved her to a clinic, where they called their obstetrician, who believed there was no serious problem but advised them to take the next plane home, just in case. “We had to buy two seats in first class so Courtney could lay down,” Kurt says. “Of course, it got reported as two rows.” In July, Hole signed to DGC for a reported million dollars, in a deal even richer and more favourable than the one Nirvana got. A Newsweek article on the onslaught of so-called “alternative” band signings in the wake of Nirvana quoted one industry man as saying that “sleeping with Kurt Cobain is worth a million dollars”.
Except for the methadone he took on the summer tour, Kurt did heroin for almost the entire pregnancy. Meanwhile, he was having to do more and more just to get the same kick, eventually working up to a $400 dollars-a-day habit. He couldn’t get up any higher, because that was the maximum his bank’s cash machine would dispense in one day.
“I ended up doing a $100 dollar shot in one shot and not even feeling it, hardly,” he says. “I was just filling up the syringe as far as it could go without pulling the end off. At that point, it was like: why do it?” The next step would have been to start doing speedballs, the mix of cocaine and heroin which had killed John Belushi. With the baby imminent, Kurt finally checked into Cedars-Sinai on August 4 to detox, going on to spend a total of 25 days there.
Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson visited Courtney and Kurt throughout the ordeal. “He totally saved our lives during that whole time,” says Kurt. “He was the only piece of reality, the only calm person who was there.” In gratitude, they put Erlandson in their will.
Except for Erlandson, no-one visited Kurt in the early stages of his rehabilitation. “I was in a really vulnerable emotional state, which is the first ten days of detox when you’re really fucked up and crying all the time,” Kurt says. “It messes with your mind so much — it’s like a never-ending acid trip. That’s exactly what detox is like. It’s like being on the heaviest dose of acid and not coming off of it for ten days, never sleeping. Time just stands still and anything affects you emotionally. Anything you read or see on television makes you cry. So it actually wouldn’t have been a good time, because I would have burst out crying in front of them, anyhow.
“I didn’t get any support from anybody the first two times I tried, either,” he continues. “No-one came to visit me or call me or anything. This time, I demanded that someone come and visit me so I felt like I had some friends. So eventually [Chris and Dave] came down.”
“It was good to see him, but it kind of bummed me out to see him in such bad shape,” says Chris. “He was on some kind of medication, lying in bed, and I was thinking: ‘Fuck, so this is where all this got you’.”
© Michael Azerrad, Vox, October 1993